Triton Timeout: The troubling contradiction of playoff emotion in sports

Hi, I’m second-year sports editor Jack Dorfman. In this column, I’ll take a timeout from discussing specific UC San Diego coaches and student-athletes and instead tackle topics related to sports more broadly, whether at UCSD or within professional leagues.

When you play a team sport, your number one goal is to help your team make the playoffs, and once in the playoffs, your goal is to win a championship. When you win a championship, you are flooded with emotion; it’s bittersweet. The happiness that you accomplished what you set out to do with the teammates you love is exactly why you play sports. 

And the same goes for fans. When you’re following a team for your entire life, you can feel a very similar connection to the team and its successes and failures, especially in the playoffs. 

For me, a hopeless Los Angeles Dodgers fan, the recent loss in Game Five of the National League Division Series to the Washington Nationals definitely left me feeling defeated and a little bit empty. 

I poured so much of my attention and energy into rooting for the team all season long, just as I have done for over 15 years, and now what do I have for the fruits of my labor and love? An empty feeling in the pit of my stomach and a few months to brood on the details of the defeat before February rolls around and pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training? At the end of it all, I find myself wondering: Was that all worth it? 

And imagine if I was one of the players, whose livelihood literally depends on my performance in such games. My successes and failures directly correlate to the happiness of millions of fans, many of whom pay for a jersey with my last name prominently embossed across the upper back and pay to see me and my teammates play sometimes every single night we’re at home.

How does one cope with that pressure and the emotion that surely must come with it? And is it worth it to you? If it really is just a job you do to get a salary, then would you want to be on a team with no playoff aspirations just to keep your fans shielded from the possibility of a playoff loss, or from a playoff drought that has in the case of many franchises extended across generations and lifetimes? 

For me, the playoffs are what sports are all about precisely because they elicit so much emotion. I don’t garner much emotion from my day-to-day life outside my interactions with family and friends, and none of that emotion is consistently as raw as what I’ve experienced after playoff losses. Some of my most poignant memories are those involving playoff sports, from Dodger wins and losses experienced with my family and friends to playoff wins in recreational league baseball with my teammates. 

Last year though, I got to experience college playoff losses for the first time from the perspective of a reporter. UC San Diego playoff wins and losses hit me just as hard as any I’d experienced previously even though I’d been at the school for less than six months at the time, especially when I saw how hard they hit the teary-eyed players and coaches. 

As tough as they can be, sports bind people together and create commonalities and meaning out of thin air and a little bit of sweat. Isn’t that something worth feeling sad about once a year during the playoffs?